The central focus of the play is Neil Simon’s exploration of dysfunctional family dynamics. No one is inherently evil, and everyone is a victim. Each character, except for the two boys, has been disabled by childhood traumas. Simon insists that the play is not autobiographical. Although the two boys resemble Simon’s depiction of himself and his brother in his semiautobiographical trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs (pr. 1982, pb. 1984), Biloxi Blues (pr. 1984, pb. 1986), and Broadway Bound (pr. 1986, pb. 1987), neither of Simon’s grandmothers resembled Grandma Kurnitz. Nevertheless, Simon’s own family was dysfunctional. His parents quarreled constantly. Relations between Simon and his mother were frequently tense. Several times his father abandoned the family for long stretches, forcing his mother to move in with relatives and work as a salesclerk at department stores. The scenes between Grandma and Bella are fictional, yet the intense emotional temperature of their exchanges, and Simon’s understanding of Bella’s desperate longing for warmth and affection, clearly reflect Simon’s own childhood needs and experience.
Lost in Yonkers continues Simon’s use of American Jewish themes begun in his Brighton Beach trilogy. His earlier successful comedies used characters whose attitudes and cadences were derived from New York Jewish humor, but no one was identified as Jewish. In this play everyone is explicitly Jewish. Simon uses comedy to soften his exploration of the darker aspects of immigrant Jewish experiences in America.
Specific reference to the Holocaust during the play would be anachronistic. In 1942 the Kurnitzes surely knew of the Nazi persecution of Jews, but they could not yet have been fully aware of the horrors occurring in Europe. Contemporary audiences do know of them, and that knowledge intensifies the effect of the play’s German references. When Jay speculates about the possibility of recovering their father’s inheritance from an uncle in Poland, Arty responds, “You think the Germans would let some Jew in Poland send nine thousand dollars to some Jew in Alabama?” The audience laughs, but their awareness of the Holocaust adds a darker edge to the humor. When Arty complains about his treatment by Grandma, she informs him that if he were a boy growing up in Germany he would already be dead. Grandma is presented as a victim of German oppression, but she is also a victimizer. Her German accent, and her harsh treatment of her family, make her Nazi-like.
Survival Everybody in the play is trying hard to survive, each in his or her own way. Grandma Kurnitz is the character in the play that influences all of the other characters and forces them to adopt their survival tactics. When Grandma Kurnitz lost two of her children, she closed off the rest of her family emotionally—her way of coping with the loss and surviving. This emotional restriction, as well as Grandma Kurnitz's harsh ways, is intended to toughen up her children so that they will learn how to survive. Her children have adapted to Grandma Kurnitz's tough guidance in various ways. For Eddie, survival equates to hard, backbreaking work. He has done what he feels is the right thing by going into debt to ease his wife's hospital stay. Now, he feels that the only way to make up this debt is to work as hard as possible, sacrificing his own health, if necessary, to make sure that his boys survive. The boys see how hard their father is pushing himself, through his letters. One letter says, " Dear Boys...Sorry I haven't kept up my letter writing. The truth is, I was in the hospital a few days. Nothing serious. The doctor...
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said it was just exhaustion.''
For Louie, survival means engaging in lucrative, illegal work that is very dangerous. Louie is constantly on the run because this kind of work has gotten him in trouble with the mob. He is a loner and does not require the approval of others, as Bella and other characters do. Grandma Kurnitz notes Louie's strength at one point but also notes that she does not approve of his methods. ‘‘You were always the strongest one. The survivor ... Live—at any cost I taught you, yes. But not when someone else has to pay the price.’’ Bella survives by remaining in a daze most of the time. As Jay and Arty note, Bella seems to wander through life, not knowing where she is going. For example, when Bella first arrives at the apartment, she walks right by it, until Jay calls down to her. "I walked right by the house, didn't I? Sometimes I daydream so much, I think I should carry an alarm clock.’’ As the play slowly reveals, Bella's daze is not due entirely to her mental impairment. Living life in a daze helps her to survive living with her mother. However, by the end of the play, she has decided to survive by fighting, instead of by hiding in a daze. She is strong and independent, and the difference shows in her intelligent comments to her mother.
The Importance of Family Despite the problems caused by the Kurnitz family dysfunctionality, the play still reinforces the idea that everybody needs the love of family to survive. Louie, one of the toughest characters in the play and certainly one of the most independent, still listens to his mother. During the cataclysmic dinner scene when Bella tells them about her boyfriend, Louie refuses to sit because he wants to leave quickly before the mob catches him. He says, "Louie sit! Louie stand! Louie eat! ... You don't scare me anymore, Ma. Maybe everyone else here, but not me. You understand?’’ Despite this independent speech, Louie sits down a few seconds later when his mother asks him to. He still loves his mother, even if the love she gave him was a tough love. Earlier in the play, when Louie first arrives, he remarks on the importance of family to Jay and Arty: ‘‘There's nothing like family, boys. The one place in the world you're safe, is with your family.... Right?’’
Eddie agrees. When he is forced to leave his boys with Grandma Kurnitz, it is his only choice. However, as he relates in a letter, he is very comfortable with his decision and writes, "Dear Boys.... The one thing that keeps me going is knowing you're with my family. Thank God you're in good hands. Love, Pop.’’ Even the hardest character in the story, Grandma Kurnitz, cannot survive without her family. She acts like she does not need anybody or anything, but Bella knows better. In the beginning, Grandma Kurnitz refuses to let Arty and Jay live with them, but Bella steps in, threatening to leave her mother if she does not let the boys stay. Bella says to her mother, "And if I go, you'll be all alone.... And you're afraid to be alone, Momma.... Nobody else knows that but me.’’
Acceptance Despite each character's attempt to survive, each of them also comes to a point in the play where they have to accept something that they do not want to. For Louie, this means accepting the fact that his lifestyle is not healthy and pursuing a normal line of work—in this case, enlisting in the military. Arty and Jay discuss the fate of their uncle when they talk about how Louie finally escaped the two men from the mob: "You think he's safer fighting in the South Pacific?’’ Jay asks Arty. For Bella, she must accept the fact that the movie usher does not want to get married and have children. Bella says, "He wants to live with his parents because he knows that they love him. . . . And that's enough for him.’’
However, through Bella's journey in discovering this, she has awakened her mature side and realizes that she can never go back to living in a daze. Bella says, "It's too late to go back for me.... Maybe I'm still a child but now there's just enough woman in me to make me miserable.’’ As Bella remarks to her mother, ‘‘We have to learn how to deal with that somehow, you and me.’’ This is the hard fact that Grandma Kurnitz has to accept: Bella has grown up and now wants new things. At the end of the play, Bella casually mentions that she would like to invite a new man over for dinner, and the play ends on Grandma Kurnitz's quiet gesture of reluctant acceptance: "GRANDMA watches BELLA, then nods her head as if to say, 'So it's come to this ....'’’